Backyard Bird Care
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6 STEPS to turn your yard into a Sanctuary for Birds

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Prepare a proper menu.

Here is additional information on menus for wild birds and other bird feeding tips from the staff at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (

Feeding Wild Birds
If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, you're in good company. Bird watching is one of America's fastest-growing hobbies, and surveys show that nearly half the households in the United States provide food for wild birds.

The appeal is obvious—by feeding birds we bring them close so we can see them more easily. Their colorful, lively company brightens up our lives, especially through the dreary days of winter.

Setting up a backyard bird feeder can make birds' lives easier, too. In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for birds. Finding food can be especially challenging during periods of extreme cold.

What should you serve your bird visitors for dinner? And how should you serve it? The shelves of supermarkets, home and garden stores, and specialty bird-feeding stores are stocked with bags, buckets, and cakes of many food types, as well as numerous different feeders. You may find the task of selecting the best foods and feeders a bit daunting.

We'll describe the basic feeder types, their pluses and minuses, and the types of birds they attract. We'll help you choose foods that the birds you want to attract enjoy the most. You'll find out where in your yard to position your feeder, and how to look after it, for the health and safety of your birds. Finally we offer suggestions about dealing with unwanted feeder visitors.

Types of Bird Feeders

The easiest way to attract birds to your yard is to put up a bird feeder. There are many different ones on the market today. Most are made for seeds, but there are also specialty feeders for certain foods, such as sugar solution for hummingbirds, suet, or peanuts. Which should you choose? The answer depends on the kinds of birds you want to attract.

We'll show you the major feeder types and describe their benefits and shortcomings. Keep in mind that each style of feeder comes in a variety of models and sizes. Quality varies too—the ideal bird feeder is sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, tight enough to keep seeds dry, large enough to avoid constant refilling, and easy to assemble and clean. Plastic or metal feeders usually beat wooden ones in meeting all these requirements.

If you want to attract the greatest variety of birds to your yard, you'll want to use several different feeder types offering a variety of foods. Alternatively, you may want to attract certain bird species, but dissuade others. The following information will help you make the correct feeder choice.

Tray or Platform Feeder:
Any flat, raised surface onto which bird food is spread.

Trays attract most species of feeder birds, but they offer no protection against squirrels, chipmunks, rain, or snow. Plus the seed can quickly become soiled by droppings because birds stand right on top of it. Tray feeders placed near the ground are most likely to attract ground-feeding birds such as juncos, doves, jays, blackbirds, and sparrows. Tray feeders work well mounted on deck railings, posts, or stumps, and also can be suspended. Some models have a roof to provide some protection from the weather. Be sure your tray feeders have plenty of drainage holes.
Hopper or House Feeder:

Platform with walls and a roof, forming an enclosed "hopper."
This type protects seeds fairly well against the weather, but less well against squirrels. It also keeps seed cleaner. Hopper feeders are attractive to most feeder birds, including finches, jays, cardinals, buntings, grosbeaks, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice. Most hoppers hold a good quantity of seed. Few are weatherproof, however, so the food may get wet and moldy if it sits for a few days. Hopper feeders can be mounted on a pole or suspended.
Window Feeder:

Usually made of clear plastic and suction-cupped to a window.
This type of feeder attracts finches, sparrows, chickadees, and titmice, allowing close-up views of the birds as they come to feed. Be aware, though, that the birds feed while standing on a pile of seeds inside the feeder, so the food risks becoming soiled.
Tube Feeder:

Hollow cylinder, usually of clear plastic, with multiple feeding ports and perches.
Tube feeders keep seed fairly clean and dry, and if they have metal feeding ports they are somewhat squirrel resistant. The birds attracted depend on the size of the perches under the feeding ports: short perches accommodate small birds such as sparrows, grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, and finches (such as the familiar House Finch), but exclude larger birds such as grackles and jays. Styles with perches above the feeding ports are designed for seed-eating birds that like to feed hanging upside down such as goldfinches, while dissuading others.
Nyjer Feeder:

Special tube feeder designed with extra-small openings to dispense tiny nyjer seeds.
Nyjer is also known as thistle or niger. These feeders attract a variety of small songbirds, especially finches and redpolls. Nyjer "socks"—fine-mesh bags to which birds cling to extract the seeds—are also available.
Suet Feeder:

Wire-mesh cage or plastic-mesh bag, such as an onion bag, which holds suet or suet mixture.
This type of feeder can be nailed or tied to a tree trunk. It can also be suspended. Suet can also be smeared into knotholes.

Suet feeders attract a variety of woodpeckers and nuthatches, as well as chickadees, titmice, jays, and starlings. Suet cages that are open only at the bottom are starling-proof; they force birds to hang upside down while feeding, something starlings find difficult.
Hummingbird Feeder:

A container to hold artificial nectar or sugar solution; may be bottle or saucer style.
The bottle or tube type of hummingbird feeder is usually made of glass or plastic, often with red plastic flowers and bee-guards (little plastic screens that keep insects away from the sugar solution) on the feeding ports. Saucer types are usually plastic.

Make sure the feeder is easy to take apart and clean, because it should be washed frequently. For example, the fill hole should be large enough for you to reach in while cleaning.

You can make your own hummingbird feeder with a bottle, rubber cork, and the drinking tube from a pet hamster water bottle. The color red attracts hummingbirds, so paint the feeding port with red nail polish or tie red ribbons to the feeder.

Saucer-shaped hummingbird feeders have feeding ports in the top, making them bee-and wasp-proof.

Saucer feeders are better than bottle feeders in direct sunlight. Bottle feeders tend to leak in the sun—air trapped in the top of the bottle expands as it warms and pushes the nectar out. In fact, you should avoid locating your hummingbird feeder in direct sun—it causes the sugar solution to spoil rapidly.

Choosing Bird Food

With such a variety of bird foods on the market it's often hard to choose which is best. Here we'll help you select the right type of food for the birds you want to attract.

In most areas, black-oil sunflower seed attracts the greatest variety of birds. It has a high meat-to-shell ratio and a high fat content. It's small and thin-shelled, making it easy for small birds, such as the Tufted Titmouse at right, to handle and crack. Striped sunflower seeds are larger with thicker seed coats.

Although sunflower seeds are the all-round favorite, particularly for tree-dwelling birds, some birds prefer different foods. Blackbirds relish corn, for instance, whereas doves, like many ground-feeding birds, prefer white millet or red milo. Certain species may even have different food preferences in different parts of their range.

Store your bird food carefully. If you buy a lot of seed, keep it in a dry, cool place, in a rodent-proof, metal can. Check the seed often for mold. Throw out any seed that is questionable.

Food Preferences of Common Feeder Birds









Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches
















Cardinals, Grosbeaks








Sparrows, Blackbirds
























Orioles, Tanagers








Pigeons, Doves








Indigo Buntings








Results based in part on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Seed Preference Test, a National Science Experiment sponsored by the National Science Foundation, launched in winter 1993-1994.

Results based in part on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Seed Preference Test, a National Science Experiment sponsored by the National Science Foundation, launched in winter 1993-1994.

Additional information on menus for wild birds and other bird feeding tips from the staff at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology are found at:

To learn more about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's 1993-1994 Seed Preference Test, read the following Birdscope articles:

Birds Like Millet and Milo, Too! by Kenneth V. Rosenberg and Rick Bonney (1994).
The National Science Experiments: Seed Preference Test yields exciting results.

Seed Preferences: East Versus West. By Kenneth V. Rosenberg and Andre A. Dhondt (1995). Why do birds in different places like different foods?

Choosing Bird Food: Seed Types

Dried whole kernel corn is a favorite food of jays, pigeons, doves, turkeys, pheasants, and quail. Cracked corn is easier for smaller birds to eat, and will attract blackbirds, finches, and sparrows, as well as the larger birds mentioned above.

There are two types of millet: red and white. Most birds find white proso millet more attractive than the red variety. Millet appeals to many ground-feeding birds, such as doves, juncos, and sparrows. However, it also attracts undesirable non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows.

The large, reddish, round seeds of milo (or sorghum) are often used as "filler" in birdseed mixes. Most birds will only eat it if there's nothing better. Be aware that it also may attract undesirable aggressive birds such as cowbirds, starlings, and grackles.

A particular favorite of cardinals, safflower is often more expensive than sunflower seed. Grosbeaks, sparrows, and doves also like it. It's sometimes suggested for dissuading undesirable species because it may have less appeal to starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.

(sometimes spelled "niger")
This is commonly known as thistle seed, although it's unrelated to native thistles. Its tiny seeds attract small finches such as goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. Nyjer is expensive, so it's best offered in specially-designed thistle seed feeders, which have tiny feeding ports that prevent spilling and dissuade larger birds.

Black-oil sunflower seed is the all-round favorite for bird feeders, particularly attractive to tree-dwelling birds. It has a high meat-to-shell ratio and is high in fat. Small size and thin shell make it easy for small birds, such as the Black-capped Chickadee, to handle and crack.

Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats, making them more difficult for small birds to process.

Titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, jays, many sparrows, and even Carolina Wrens are attracted to peanuts. They can be offered shelled or whole. Peanut feeders are specially-designed wire-mesh cages, often cylindrical.

Mixed Seed:
This is best sprinkled on the ground or onto platform feeders. Mixed seed typically contains high quantities of millet, preferred by ground-feeding birds. Many feeder birds will not eat millet. Likewise, ground-feeding birds that favor millet will not have access to it if it's in a feeder. Try filling hanging feeders with sunflower seeds and spreading mixed seed for ground-feeding birds.

Hummingbirds and Nectar
Flower nectar is the principle natural food of hummingbirds. If you provide hummingbird feeders, you will need to make your own artificial "nectar." Since hummingbirds also eat insects, you don't need to purchase expensive commercial hummingbird nectars that have added vitamins and minerals. A sugar solution is adequate.

To make sugar solution for hummingbirds, add one part sugar to four parts boiling water (boil the water before measuring, because some water will evaporate away in the process). When the mixture is cool it is ready for use. You can store extra sugar water in your refrigerator for up to one week, but left longer it may become moldy.

Don't add red food coloring to the sugar solution—it is unnecessary and possibly harmful to the birds. Red portals on the feeder, or even a red ribbon on top, will attract the hummingbirds just as well.

Important Tips

* Change sugar solution every three to five days to prevent mold and deadly fermentation.
* Clean the hummingbird feeder often.
* NEVER use honey or artificial sweeteners in hummingbird feeders. Honey grows mold that can be dangerous—even fatal—to hummingbirds, and sweeteners will not provide the energy and nutrition that birds require.
* Do not put any kind of oil around feeding portals to deter insects. Oil might contaminate the nectar, or get on the birds' plumage ruining its insulative properties. If bees, wasps, or ants become a problem, try moving the feeder

Choosing Bird Food: Other Foods

Suet is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, such as the Red-bellied Woodpecker, but many insect-eating birds—nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, creepers, kinglets, and even cardinals—are fond of it, too. It's a high-energy food, much appreciated in cold weather.

Suet is the hard fat surrounding beef kidneys. It is inexpensive and available from butchers and at many supermarket meat counters. Commercial suet cakes are manufactured from "rendered" suet, a process in which it is melted, cooked, and strained, making it less prone to melting and spoilage.

Avoid offering unprocessed suet in hot weather—it quickly becomes rancid. If you want to offer suet year-round, commercial suet cakes are preferable, but check the package recommendations. Another suggestion is to put out only small amounts of suet, keeping the rest refrigerated until needed. A good warm-weather alternative to suet is a mixture of one part peanut butter to five parts cornmeal.

Offer suet in a plastic mesh bag (like the sort onions are packaged in) or a wire basket or cage (this keeps the raccoons and squirrels out), suspended from a branch or attached to a tree trunk.

Starlings are very fond of suet. To dissuade these undesirables, offer suet in a feeder that requires birds to feed hanging upside down. Woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches will access it easily, but starlings cannot.

Fruit and Fruit Seeds:
Birds such as robins, thrushes, waxwings, and bluebirds usually don't visit seed feeders because seeds are not a major part of their diet. But you can attract them with fruit. Mockingbirds, tanagers, and catbirds may be attracted too. Try raisins or currants softened by soaking in water. Offer diced fresh fruit, such as apples, melons, or grapes. Orange halves are particularly desirable, especially to orioles, which also go for grape jelly.

You can also save your Halloween pumpkin seeds, and other squash or melon seeds, for the birds. Some relish these more than black-oil sunflower seeds. Spread them out to let them dry and then run them through the food processor. This makes it easier for smaller birds to eat them.

Birds also will eat stale bread and other leftovers. Just make sure they're not moldy or they may harm the birds. Be aware, too, that table scraps may attract nuisance species such as European Starlings, House Sparrows, rats, or raccoons.
Grit and Minerals:

Putting out grit will attract birds because they need it as a digestive aid. Birds, especially the seed eaters, "chew" their food in their gizzard, a highly muscular part of the stomach. To assist in the grinding, they sometimes swallow hard materials such as tiny stones, sand, ashes, fragments of charcoal, or broken oyster shells. You can purchase grit at most feed and pet stores.

Eggshells are another source of grit, plus they provide calcium, an important mineral for birds in the spring when they are producing their own eggs. If you provide eggshells, be sure to bake them for 20 minutes at 250 degrees F to kill Salmonella bacteria. Let the eggshells cool, and then crush them into pieces smaller than a dime. Offer the eggshells on the ground, in a dish, or on a low platform feeder, separate from your seed feeders.

To learn more about birds and calcium, read the following Birdscope articles:

Birds and Calcium , by Tracey L. Kast, Paul E. Allen, and Andre A. Dhondt (1998). Results of the Lab's Birds and Calcium Project show that calcium use varies among species.

Feeding Calcium to Birds, by Andre A. Dhondt (1999). The Lab's Birds and Calcium Project determines we should offer calcium on the ground and on platform feeders.